As the machines take over, Apple desperately clings to humanity

Technically incorrect: In Monday's announcement of its new music service, Apple is clinging to the hope that people still want to be people and want to believe in other people, rather than in the supremacy of the machines.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Apple. Defenders of the Human Faith? CNET

The ideas on show at Apple's WWDC 2015 were less magical and revolutionary and more human and nostalgic.

Apple launched its new music service by first reminding everyone that its brand was about people, rather than machines.

The joke has always been that Android is for nerds and Apple is for real human beings.

As Google has rushed headlong into taking humans away from the steering wheel and shovelling all known human data into and through its algorithms, Apple has consistently asserted its continued interest in the Human Project.

Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed privacy and insisted that this was an issue of human morality.

On the eve of WWDC 2015, he talked about diversity and how it was very much a problem that his company intended to grapple with.

Cook has brought Apple to the forefront of issues such as gay rights in Indiana too.

During Monday's presentation, however, Apple almost wanted to go back to a time when authoritative humans, rather than machines, recommended you music. It wanted to go back to a time when men wore platform boots and women wore handkerchiefs for skirts.

Apple wants DJs and other famous people to offer you some relief from one of the things you fear most: abundance. When there's so much stuff, how do you choose? Do you really want to make the effort every day to find something to listen to? Do you really want a machine to do it for you?

After all, in other areas of your life you rely on aggregators and other wise people to sift, so that you don't drift into a peculiar madness.

Apple wants machine knowledge of you to be kept on your own machine, rather than stored in some company vault where nefarious beings might reach it and discover your penchant for an obscure Australian band called the Mixtures and a very noisy punk outfit called the Mutants.

Some have suggested that this quaint belief in humanity is dangerous for Apple's business. Renowned Apple commentator John Gruber worries that there is a strong argument to suggest that Apple may not be able to improve its products as quickly as Google, because it won't have as much information about your daily habits.

This might be. But the curious thing about Apple is that it has never been overly obsessed with data. Would data have led Jony Ive and his team to insert that curious but fascinating wheel -- the Digital Crown -- on to the Apple Watch? Would data have designed the iPhone? Some might suggest that the machine people chose subsequently to copy it. Steve Jobs certainly suggested that.

Gruber worriedly quotes Dustin Curtis, who insists: "Google knows where I am right now, where I need to be for my meeting in an hour, what the traffic is like, and whether I usually take public transportation, a taxi, or drive myself. Using that information, it can tell me exactly when to leave. This isn't science fiction; it's actually happening. And Apple's hardline stance on privacy is going to leave it in Google's dust."

It may well be that the deplorably weak humans will continue to cede what's left of their humanity to machines that are able to tell them what to do, so that humans don't have to think.

Apple's challenge, therefore, is to channel some continued essence of humanity -- be it beauty, simplicity, or even a semblance of honesty -- through its products.

For a very long time, engineers have used the argument that Apple's products are retrograde in pure engineering terms. Cupertino, they claim, catches up with so many features years after they're incorporated into Android products.

The question is, though, whether human beings really care about features or whether they, too, will continue to express and bathe in some of those absurd basics that make us human.

No machine, hopefully, will ever fully be able to explain or predict the weepy movies we'll like, the next band we'll adore after One Direction or the next reality TV family that will be so popular that even presidential candidates will have to mention them.

I think of the machines in the same way I think of academics. They have so much knowledge, yet their explanations for human behavior can often be so dull and long-winded that who wants to listen. Their solutions, moreover, can befuddle and complicate, while humans crave simplicity and peace.

Perhaps the machines will win in the end. Perhaps we will all become so dependent (and it isn't looking good, is it?) that we'll be mere dispensable ciphers, ready to lick our robots' boots.

Apple is hanging on to the (perhaps forlorn) hope that enough essences of humanity will survive to keep the Kurzweils from the door.

See all of today's WWDC news.